At mid-January we’ve completed the non-conference portion of the season, and have seen just enough Big East play to start another round of heated discussions. There’s no doubt about it, top to bottom this is the toughest conference in the country; even 6-10 South Florida has given fits to Syracuse and Pitt! This mid-season report card gives a taste of how well teams have weathered the Big East storm thus far, but know this: March is a long ways away right now, with every team having a brutal schedule between now and then.
BIG EAST MID-SEASON REPORT CARD
Key wins: At UNLV Key losses: Providence
Mick Cronin’s Bearcats have improved slowly but surely each year, but that seems to have come to a halt. This is a good rebounding team, as they outrebound their opponents by nearly 8 rebounds per game. Their two main weaknesses, however, are shooting and turnovers. Cincy ranks 14th in the conference shooting 43% from the field, and they have a negative turnover margin. What’s positive about having these weaknesses are that they’re easy to work on and correct. Both of these weaknesses can be explained by the lack of experience; they rank 327th in the country with an average experience of just one year. Deonta Vaughn is the clear-cut leader in the team with 15,4, and 5 per game, but he’s the only player scoring in double digits. This may be a rebuilding year amidst a down-trodden program, but the Bearcats should be much improved and polished come the 2009-10 season.
Key wins: Miami, Wisconsin, at West Virginia, at Gonzaga Key losses: Georgetown
Jim Calhoun’s Huskies are back at the top of the pack, a spot they’ve been familiar with over the last decade. In a conference saturated with physical basketball, this team with 7 players at least 6’7 fits the mold very well. One trait that UConn teams have sported over the years is shot blocking, and this season is no different. Hasheem Thabeet leads the conference with 3.7 blocks per game and the Huskies as a team are second in the conference with 6.8 blocks per game. Like their conference brethren, this is yet another team with great balance, as A.J. Price and Kemba Walker can shoot teams out of the gym in a hurry. The intangible for this team that stands out in my mind was in the win at Gonzaga. The Huskies traveled 3,000 miles across the country to play a very good Bulldogs team, and when the Zags thought they had it wrapped up in the second half, UConn charged back to force overtime and ultimately win. This team is talented enough to overcome adverse conditions, and is a major factor in what makes this conference so tough.
Key wins: At UIC Key losses: Morgan State, South Florida
This team has fallen on some very hard times, and it’s more apparent now than ever before. The Blue Demons have lost 5 of their last 6 games, with the only win coming against lowly Alcorn State. DePaul is the worst shooting team in the conference, shooting 27% from beyond the arc and 61% from the free throw line, and 41% overall from the field. Like Cincy, Jerry Wainright’s team is very young, with an average experience of just 1.26 years. Their one bright spot this year is Dar Tucker, who’s putting up 19 points and bringing in 6 boards per game. February is a brutal month for this team, with games coming up against Marquette, Pitt (twice), ‘Nova and Louisville. DePaul is usually good for an upset victory each year, but there are no signs of potential for it at this point.
Key wins: At UConn, Syracuse Key losses: Tennessee
This team shows exactly what kind of a roller coaster the Big East can be. The Hoyas start out conference play by beating UConn in Storrs in convincing fashion, then put themselves in a 1-2 hole with losses to Pitt and Notre Dame, and then turn things around with a win vs. Providence and a big win at home against Syracuse. All in all, not a bad start against 5 teams who are a combined 19-4 so far in conference play. Several things I like about this team. One, they play great defense, as they do every year. Two: their versatile offensive schemes. Against zone defense, they have good shooters from the perimeter, and can get a lot of inside looks against man-to-man defense through back-door screens and great ball movement. Third: The X factor, Greg Monroe. This guy doubles as a center and a 6’11 point guard. He plays at the maturity level of a junior and has excellent court vision. This team may be under the radar at 3-2, but can beat just about any style of team.
Key wins: At Villanova, Notre Dame, Pitt Key losses: WKU, UNLV
The Cardinals were off to a shaky start this year, but have bounced back with must-win games over ‘Nova and Notre Dame, and had a big win at home over #1-ranked Pitt. The caveat to the first two wins is that Villanova missed 3 game-winning shots under the basket to lose by a point, and Notre Dame made an impressive comeback at Freedom Hall to force overtime. This team is very well balanced with Earl Clark, Edgar Sosa, and Jerry Smith in the backcourt, big man Samardo Samuels and wing man Terrence Williams. Although Samuels has played well up to this point, he’s no David Padgett, and still lacks certain intangibles in terms of court presence. Three positive factors for the team are defensive efficiency (81 pts per 100 possessions, good for first in the country), defensive rebounding (75% of rebounds on the defensive side are pulled down by Cardinals, 26th in the country), and a future hall of fame coach in Rick Pitino. This team had its sights set on the Final Four in November, and will need to make quick progress in a very tough conference to achieve this goal.
Key wins: At N.C. State, Villanova, West Virginia Key losses: Dayton
The Golden Eagles have surprised quite a few people this season, myself included. Jerel McNeal is the leader of the trio of senior guards with 18.5 ppg and is shooting 45% from beyond the arc, including the game against Cincy when he went 7 for 7. The main ailment for Marquette this year is no secret, they lack size, and rank 303rd in the country in average height. The key to their success so far is efficiency, they’re 12th in the country in offensive efficiency and 46th in defensive efficiency. The defensive improvement can be attributed to Coach Williams instituting a 1-3-1 zone defense to a team that strictly played man-to-man during the Tom Crean era. Offensively they’ve improved by getting to the free throw line more often, and are shooting 73% from the charity stripe, a figure that’s gone up 6 points in the last 2 years. Despite the strong start, Marquette has a brutal finish, playing at Georgetown, UConn, at Louisville, at Pitt, and home to Syracuse. This team could go from a 3rd round bye to no bye in the Big East tourney if they trip up down the stretch.
Notre Dame: B
Key wins: Georgetown Key losses: St. John’s
Looks like Luke Harangody is having another mediocre season. Oh no wait, he’s 1st in the conference in scoring by 2.5 ppg and is second in the conference in rebounding. Did I mention he’s making 81% of his free throws? Besides Harangody, Kyle McAlarney poses a great shooting threat to complement the inside presence. The Irish do play at a slower pace, but they take care of the basketball, and have the best assist/turnover ratio in the conference at 1.9. Although Harangody is this team’s biggest strength, he’s also the key to their biggest weakness. Put a couple quick fouls on him early in the game and Notre Dame will be forced to play catch-up in the second half. The teams that have the best shot at beating the Irish are teams with a player who can defend Harangody. Notre Dame likes to collapse the defenders around him to open up the passing lanes. If the defenders hold their man-to-man coverage and stay on the perimeter, Harangody’s forced to make a play on his own, and thus leaves the team running a one-dimensional offense.
Key wins: At Georgetown , at Florida State Key losses: At Louisville
Jamie Dixon’s Panthers have nearly played flawless up until this point, leading Pitt to their first ever #1 ranking. There are a lot of players to talk about with this talented team. Wing man Sam Young can do it all, making 37% of his 3-pointers and putting up 19 ppg. Pittsburgh native DeJuan Blair is averaging a double-double each night, and plays with a great amount of passion. The player who I’ve enjoyed watching the most on Pitt this season is Levance Fields. With 7 assists per game (1st in the Big East), he truly is playing a quarterback role for the Pittsburgh offense. The Panthers survived their first Big East test with a big win at Georgetown, but faltered at Freedom Hall. Two tough tests down, 13 to go, just another day in the life of the Big East. Key stat: Pitt leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage with 44%.